To descend into the darkness of Tashkent’s Sila Bar is to enter a different world. Tucked away in the basement of an Italian restaurant, red lights strobe across the bar’s pulsing dancefloor, where the city’s young creatives and mavericks move in perfect harmony with the throb of electronica. Sila may bring to mind the kind of clubs and bars you’d find in any large European city — but not in Tashkent. Here, the music is paving the way to a much desired — and long overdue — freedom of expression.
Uzbekistan has long been a black hole on Eurasia’s music map, often finding itself culturally isolated. When underground raves began to blossom in neighbouring Kazakhstan, the same parties and mass gatherings remained a distant dream for Uzbekistan’s youth, who saw new waves of music skirt the country’s borders. Even in the capital, the city’s nightlife remained dominated by hyper-commercialised party nights or cafes, where friends sit behind tables to talk over salad and shashlyks.
“There are no places with just a dancefloor, where people can come to dance, drink, and relax,” says Sergey Gorobtsov, who creates visuals for the parties at Sila and beyond. “Few people like to express themselves.”
Even cafes or bars which offer music often find themselves falling short. “There is no understanding of music, neither among the DJs, nor venue owners,” says Aleksandr Mekhonoshin, who DJs at the club. “They do not care about the format, the direction, or the music. Money is their main motivation and the rest – the idea — becomes secondary.”
For young people, especially those with experience of living abroad, Tashkent has had little to offer. But some are taking it upon themselves to give the capital’s nightlife the boost it so desperately needs.
Yuriy Khodjaev returned to his hometown of Tashkent in March 2018, after 13 years of living in Moscow. He had one goal: to bring energy to the city’s nightlife scene. After a failed attempt to run an electronic music bar, he decided to take things in his own hands. Khodjaev began gathering a crew and organising his own parties. That group later became Fragment: a new collective nurturing a fresh dawn for Uzbek electronica.
“I realised I had nowhere to go to dance. On a Friday night, I would have a drink, go out, and I couldn’t find a place I would feel comfortable. And the best way to feel comfortable is to do it yourself. That’s how Fragment began,” says Khodjaev, sitting over a glass of Uzbek cognac in his kitchen.
He had chosen a difficult path. Bar owners were reluctant to trust him and his vision, and after years of living abroad he had few local contacts and no audience. It took time to gather a crew of DJs who shared his ideas and passion for music. But his determination and patience eventually paid off.
Khodjaev’s first party took place in a private studio belonging to his friend. From there, the collective has continued to grow, recruiting four local DJs, two of whom previously lived and played in Kiev and Dubai. Khodjaev also liaised with a friend, Otabek Suleimanov, to organise the Stihia festival — Uzbekistan’s first rave, held on the former shores of the desiccated Aral Sea in September 2018.
Despite being born from the sheer need to dance, Fragment has grown into something bigger than a party. Social media has created a community of people who have longed for a new music scene in Uzbekistan. Through its Telegram channel, Fragment constantly updates Tashkent’s youth on electronic music and artists, announcing upcoming events with self-made graphics and videos of past parties.
Everything has been funded by the DJs themselves, all of whom have invested swathes of time and money to make the movement happen, as well as working regular day jobs. Graphics and videos are cobbled together with the help of friends.
“They asked who could do a video from the last party and I said I can try,” says Gorobtsov, who had never worked with video professionally before starting with Fragment. He eventually landed a job as a video editor thanks to his experience producing the group’s visuals. “Until then I was quite bored and the time was just passing, so this is giving me motivation to do something, to be more active. I don’t want to just sit and do nothing.”
Fragment has provided a community, allowing for young creatives bored with the city’s depressive nightlife to hang out in an atmosphere free of constraints. In a country where a struggling economy means many young people find few opportunities to grow and many decide to emigrate to Russia, South Korea, or the EU, Fragment has been a life-changer.
Nigora Rizaeva, a regular attendee of Fragment’s events, returned to Tashkent after a year in Poland to complete her degree in architecture. The ongoing lack of opportunities in the country, the overwhelming bureaucracy, and the country’s long-ingrained conservative culture have made her think of leaving again.
“People are afraid to do big things here. There is no freedom in Uzbekistan”
“People are afraid to do big things here,” Rizaeva explains. “There is no freedom in Uzbekistan. This is the main thing. People leave because they don’t feel free. When I went to Europe, I felt that I could finally spread my wings, because everything was possible, and if you’re doing your job well, no one will try to put you down.”
For Rizaeva and many people like her, Fragment has become the only place where they can freely express themselves. “When I went to the first party, I felt this atmosphere, similar to that in Warsaw, and I felt free. Music gives me freedom. Music is a powerful thing. When you dance you feel yourself free,” she says.
While Uzbekistan has a long way to go to become the open society many young Uzbeks would wish for, hope is beginning to take root. Since long-serving, conservative President Islam Karimov died in 2016, the country is slowly opening up, with the press granted greater autonomy and growing economic freedom. More people dare to believe that a gradual but irreversible social and cultural change is already starting to take place. Fragment is just one of the symptoms of the recent opening — and they are already making plans for the future.
“Culture is changing. We’re bringing together people: photographers, artists, journalists who meet one another and come up with new projects and ideas,” Khodjaev says. He’s already planning to launch his own radio show in a bid to spread Fragment’s message further. “I think this youth will one day be making decisions in this country. They will be doing something important here.”
He also believes that Fragment is only the beginning of a greater and deeper change. “I feel like I’m in a dark room where someone has finally opened up the window and let the air in. This is the feeling I have. Fresh air.”